Bright ideas: A treatment plan for America’s health-care system

Martin Refsal woke up one morning feeling “deathly ill.” His neck was swollen. He has a primary care physician, but decided to phone a company called Sherpaa. Within one hour he had a prescription called in at a pharmacy down the block and a referral to see a specialist later that same afternoon. The best part: the service provided by Sherpaa was free.

This experience wasn’t a fluke and yes, Refsal, a marketing associate at a New York City tech start-up, lives in the United States. This is the work of Dr. Jay Parkinson, founder of Sherpaa, which aims to provide mobile medical attention and reduce unnecessary visits to the doctor’s office.

Sherpaa is offered as a benefit by about 100 companies, mostly in New York City, but also in New Jersey and California. The company is about to expand into Illinois. The companies that are using Sherpaa are paying about $30 per month, per employee, to provide 24/7 access to doctors.

By reducing unnecessary visits to the doctor’s office, Sherpaa’s founders say the service is reducing the number of insurance claims generated by employees and the hope is that businesses will save money by slowing or even cutting their future insurance costs. This model is what Parkinson believes is the future of primary care.

To attract top doctors, Sherpaa is paying them about 10 percent more than the typical primary care physician makes. Important not only because Sherpaa wants to provide top service, but also because primary care physicians make about $3 million less during their careers than specialists do. That’s one reason why there is a shortage of primary care doctors in the U.S.

Parkinson says it’s common knowledge that our health-care system is broken and inefficient, “Everybody’s sat in the ER for you know six hours and then they’re told ‘hey you’re fine, just go home,’ and gotten the bill for $5,000.”

After graduating medical school, Parkinson decided he wasn’t interested in propagating the crippled health-care system; he wanted to make it better.

Faced with an $800-a-month payment on his $280,000 in student debt, he didn’t want to rent office space, Instead, he created a blog, added his calendar to it and started making house calls to patients in Brooklyn who didn’t have insurance. He was seeing about six to seven patients a day, charging $100 a visit. His story gained national attention, but he wanted to tackle the issues on a larger scale.

A few health-related projects later and Parkinson finally felt his grander vision, which would soon be called Sherpaa, was within reach. “When I saw an opportunity to build a platform that would allow, not only myself to practice, but other doctors across America to practice … that’s what enabled a company to be founded.”

At Sherpaa, doctors answer medical questions, give advice, diagnose problems by looking at pictures and checking symptoms, prescribe medication and speed up the referral process. The company also has insurance specialists who can help patients decipher complicated insurance claims.

Parkinson says he hasn’t lost a single client since Sherpaa was founded in 2012.

He believes Sherpaa is not only beneficial for patients; it’s good for business too. “If a company can invest $360 a year to save $1,600 a year, it’s in their best interest.” That’s how much he says companies are saving by reducing insurance claims through the service. He says Sherpaa is cutting claims by about 70 percent.

Since health care is the second-largest expense for companies, Parkinson says it’s up to businesses to “spearhead the health-care revolution.”

So, how is it legal for a doctor to diagnose a patient over the phone and prescribe medicine without ever meeting the patient in person?

All of Sherpaa’s doctors are covered by malpractice insurance and because of the online nature of the company, Parkinson says its doctors are creating extensive paper trails, reducing their liability risk. If they don’t feel comfortable diagnosing a patient and prescribing treatment, they refer patients to a specialist, but Sherpaa says that only happens about 30 percent of the time.

Since Sherpaa has developed a symbiotic relationship with these outside doctors, Parkinson says the company has pull to make sure their patients aren’t on a months-long waiting list to get into an exam room.

Ida Santana, a Sherpaa physician, says the company is making medicine modern: “It’s moving medicine into an electronic age, where most doctors don’t email with their patients, like who doesn’t email? That’s the days of dinosaurs.”

When asked if she ever fears the consequences of not being face-to-face with patients, Santana said she thinks Sherpaa’s method is more thorough, “We’re over-communicating and that access means that things that would be missed or errors, there’s more opportunity to be there and figure out what’s going on.”

Another satisfied customer, Ash Kalb, founder of cyber security firm White Ops, decided to sign up his company up for Sherpaa because he says it makes health care more effective, since his employees don’t have to see a doctor to communicate with one. “I think it may be the way that everything goes because the efficiency gain is just incredible. I can’t imagine that insurance companies don’t want this to happen,” Kalb said.

Merging together the technological ways people communicate these days, with methods that make our current system more efficient for doctors, patients and businesses is what Parkinson has been aiming to do throughout his seven-year career and what he believes is true progress.

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